Public service workers tell of job strains of serving in pandemic

Health care worker shoes are displayed near the U.S. Capitol in Washington July 21, 2020. The display honors 164 nurses who have died since the pandemic reached the United States early this year. (CNS photo/Tom Brenner, Reuters)

WASHINGTON—Workers whose jobs put them in direct contact with the public related both the pride and fear of doing their work amid the coronavirus pandemic during a July 22 forum sponsored by the Catholic Labor Network.

“We are the proverbial tip of the spear,” said Stephen Mittons, a child protection investigator for the city of Chicago’s Department of Child and Family Services. If there’s an allegation of abuse or neglect, he added, “we physically knock on that door and try to ensure the safety of that child. We have not missed a beat. There has not been a day when I or one of my colleagues has not been in the field.”

Mittons has protective gear to carry out his work, but the families he visits may not. “I visit four homes a day,” he said. “I could pick up something from one home and give it to another family I visit. Or bring it into my home.”

The same is true for Phil Cisneros, a financial specialist in the public guardian’s office of Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago. The office represents the interests of both children and adults with disabilities. Cisneros works in what he called the “adult division” of the office, protecting seniors from scammers. “It pays bills for seniors who can’t handle their own finances,” he said.

Yet senior citizens have shown to be more likely than other segments of the population to be infected by the coronavirus.

Clayton Sinyai, executive director of the Catholic Labor Network, noted how the National Nurses United labor union “put out 164 pairs of white shoes” July 21 to honor 164 nurses who have died since the pandemic reached the United States early this year.

From both a public health and an economic perspective, Sinyai said, “we haven’t seen the recovery many of us had hoped for.”

He added, “It’s shocking to think what will happen if our public health agencies are underfunded.”

The coronavirus is “out of control, especially in the Sun Belt,” said Becky Levin, assistant director of the federal government affairs department for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents both Mittons and Cisneros.

Making the situation more dire is that “people aren’t spending money the way they used to,” which is lowering sales tax revenue to states, counties and cities, Levin said. “It’s really changed our economy overnight in a way none of us could have foreseen,” she added. “I don’t think anybody envisioned this for a rainy day fund.”

Despite the economic plunge, most states are constitutionally required to balance their budgets, “and we’re looking at maybe a 20% drop in revenues, maybe even bigger,” Levin said. “The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities put out a new revision estimating that we’re looking at a two-year revenue shortfall of $555 billion. That doesn’t include counties and it doesn’t include cities.”

AFSCME had declared July 22 as a “day of action” for its members to call their representatives in Congress to pass the HEROES Act. The House passed a version in May, but the Senate has not acted on the bill amid intraparty wrangling among Republicans, who control the Senate.

“It looks like Democrats are starting to have some talks with Republicans, which is as it should be,” Levin said. “There is a lot of pressure for them to get it done before they go on vacation.”

AFSCME is just one of many unions pressing their case before lawmakers to include funding for critical needs in the HEROES Act, or the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act.

The Amalgamated Transit Union is urging funding for public transit and the motorcoach industry, and stronger health protections for workers. National Nurses United is demanding more and better protection for health care workers. The Utility Workers Union wants Congress to improve protections for all frontline workers still on the job during the pandemic. The Machinists and the Association of Flight Attendants want airlines to live up to their obligation to keep their workers on the payroll.

Actors Equity seeks health care protection for theater workers whose shows, and health care coverage, have been canceled due to the pandemic. The NewsGuild wants Congress to provide stimulus money to local newspapers to preserve newsroom staffs cut even more severely in recent months than in the past decade. Two unions want the White House to activate the Defense Production Act to get factories making ventilators, gloves and other protective equipment.

Levin estimated a cost of $128 billion for school systems nationwide just to buy more school buses and hire drivers for them. “You can’t shove that many kids on a bus anymore,” she said.

By Mark Pattison